“No, I worked hard,” Leonard said. “It’s my fifth year, [and] it’s just not about what I did this summer [to prepare]. It’s about the experience that I’ve had under my belt for the past four years.”
Leonard spent his first four years in the NBA developing, basically waiting his turn, before emerging last season to lead the team in scoring (16.5 points per game). It marked the first time since the 1996-97 season that Tim Duncan, Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili didn’t lead San Antonio in scoring, and it will likely continue into the future as the Spurs have finally handed Leonard the keys to the offense -- this season he leads the Spurs at 21.6 points per game.
Here are five ways Leonard has emerged into a superstar this season:
1. Creating shots off the dribble. That’s probably the most significant development of Leonard’s game, and it boosts the forward’s usage rate. Leonard’s usage rate checked in below the league average over the first three years of his career but increased to 23 percent in 2014-15, including 23.8 percent after the All-Star break. Prior to last season, Leonard rarely got all the way to the basket and instead relied on midrange pull-up jumpers, turnarounds and right-hand hooks in the post. He has since added more to his game, most notably an improved 3-point shot and the ability to create shots off the dribble. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Leonard is currently the league’s best offensive spot-up player. The Spurs place Leonard in spot-up situations, which end in either a catch-and-shoot or catch-and-drive play, 25.2 percent of the time. Leonard has managed to score 125 points in those situations this season, which ranks No. 1 in the league.
2. Improved 3-point shooting. Leonard currently leads the NBA in 3-point field goal percentage (50 percent), and that’s after he shot 36.8 percent from beyond the arc over his first four seasons while never shooting better than 38 percent in any season. Leonard is shooting by 15.1 percent better from 3-point range, which ranks as the largest increase in the NBA from last season to this season (minimum 200 attempts), according to research from ESPN Stats and Information. Spurs shooting coach Chip Engelland deserves some of the credit for Leonard’s improved numbers.
3. Versatility. If Leonard manages to maintain his current clip, he’ll produce a combination of defense and shooting the NBA hasn’t yet seen. In addition to Leonard’s 50 percent shooting from beyond the arc, he’s averaging 1.2 blocks and 1.9 steals per game. The last player to put together a similar stat line was Larry Bird during 1984-85 season, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Bird shot 42.7 percent from 3-point range that season while averaging 1.6 blocks and 1.2 steals. It’s also important to note Leonard is currently the only player ranked in the top 10 this season in both offensive and defensive Real Plus-Minus. What should scare opponents is the fact that Leonard, having spent considerable time working on different facets of his game with Spurs player-development coach Chad Forcier, hasn’t yet reached his full potential as he’s still learning when to deploy certain elements of his game.
4. Defense. Duh, that’s how Leonard made his mark in the league, and he needs to continue to dominate on that end of the court as arguably the league’s best wing defender while San Antonio works out the kinks offensively. San Antonio entered Monday’s 119-68 rout of the Philadelphia 76ers allowing 92.8 points per 100 possessions while owning the NBA’s top defensive rating, and Leonard is the main reason. The Spurs came into Monday’s game with Leonard leading the league with 1.8 defensive win shares, which are a calculation of the number of wins that can be attributed to a single player. Leonard limits opponents to below league average shooting percentages on every zone of the court and overall is holding opponents to 42.6 percent from the field. What’s more impressive is the fact Leonard typically guards the opponent’s best scorer. As a team, the Spurs are giving up just 88.3 points per game, which leads the NBA.
5. Work ethic. Coaches and personnel people often describe players as “gym rats,” but it’s real with Leonard, who spent the summer in San Diego conducting twice-a-day workouts (he actually cut it down from three), and it’s the main reason we’re seeing Leonard’s leap into superstardom. First off, Leonard didn’t exactly underachieve over his first three NBA seasons considering he was part of two NBA Finals teams and won Finals MVP in 2014. But it seemed there was always the hope the Spurs could coax more from Leonard, given his combination of skills and athleticism. Leonard showed significant growth during the second half of last season, and it has continued this season due to his relentless work ethic.
“I pretty much worked on everything [over the summer], from dribbling to catch-and-shoot, my decision-making,” Leonard said.
Engelland told the San Antonio Express-News that Leonard is the type of player who “will work hard over a long period of time for a goal. He’s a throwback in the way that he doesn’t need immediate satisfaction.”